Grace Nichols, born in Guyana but a resident of Britain since 1977, wrote the poem 'Island Man' 'for a Caribbean island man in London who still wakes up to the sound of the sea' (her own words). It is a poem of contrasts based on the two places that the man has known as home and is set as he is waking up in London.
The first stanza of five lines tells us that it is morning and that the man hears the sounds of the island 'in his head' as he wakes up. These are the sounds of nature, of the sea: 'blue surf' and waves 'breaking and wombing'. Wombing is an unusual verb used by Shakespeare to mean 'enclosing'; it is the final word of the first stanza but leads through enjambment to the 'wild seabirds' in the first line of the second stanza, as if the sea is about to give birth to the birds. In stanza two, which is six lines long, Nichols continues the theme of dreaming about the island as the fisherman set out to sea and the sun rises 'defiantly' (in contrast to London weather, of course). The images are again based in nature, and the colours in these initial stanzas are rich and beautiful: 'blue surf' and 'his small emerald island'.
Stanza two ends, however, with the phrase that tells us how the man has to emerge from his dream 'groggily groggily'; these words set to one side to emphasise that the dream has ended and a different setting is being introduced. The repetition of 'groggily' also serves to portray the idea that this is a reluctant, slow awakening. The third stanza consists of four lines, repeating the phrase 'comes back' from the end of the preceding stanza. Nichols tells us here that he comes back to 'sands', but as we continue to the next line we realise that these are metaphorical sands 'of a grey metallic soar'. The natural images change to man-made ones, and the beauty of the island's colours has switched to grey. The sounds of the sea have now turned into those of London traffic, with a 'surge of wheels' and a 'roar' on the North Circular road; the use of the adjective 'dull' to describe the road echoes the greyness two lines earlier. The 'surge of wheels' in line fourteen is pushed to one side as was the phrase 'groggily groggily', almost as though the man is trying to push the sounds of London out of his head.
Enjambment is again used to connect to the fourth stanza which opens with the phrase 'muffling muffling', this time echoing the repetition of 'groggily groggily' and suggesting once again that there is a struggle to shut out one set of sounds in favour of another. Nichols uses the metaphor 'crumpled pillow waves' to link the ideas here back to the sounds and images of the sea at the beginning of the poem. The fact that the man 'heaves' himself out of bed gives the impression that he is unwilling to leave his dream of the Caribbean Island and face the reality of 'Another London day', the final line of the poem which is set apart from the previous stanza.
The lack of punctuation in the poem allows the lines and stanzas to flow freely, underlining the image of the sea. The irregular lengths of both lines and stanzas form a visual pattern reminiscent of the ebb and flow of the tide on the shore. Rhyme is also irregular here, with just one or two rhyming words dotted here and there such as 'soar' and roar', perhaps to give a natural feel. Alliteration with soft 's' sounds features in the images of the island: 'sound of blue surf', 'sun surfacing'. We can find assonance in the final stanza, in the phrases 'muffling/his crumpled pillow...' and the final 'Another London day'.
'Island Man' is just nineteen lines in length, but Grace Nichols succeeds in presenting us with a concise poem that conjures up vividly the idea of a man who has left his native island in the hope of a better life in one of the world's great capital cities but finds himself longing for the simplicity and beautiful surroundings of the island of his birth.